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March 17, 2005

Ari Fleischer: Liar Or Dolt?

Kevin Drum recommends a review by Jonathan Chait of Ari Fleischer's new memoir:

I have always believed that Ari Fleischer is a duplicitous genius. During his tenure as White House press secretary, he elevated the mundane practice of misleading reporters and avoiding their questions into an art form...

I'm not sure exactly what I expected from Fleischer's new book, Taking Heat. I hoped it would offer some insight into the mind of a brilliant con man. At the very least, I figured it would be interesting as propaganda. But it was maddeningly dull propaganda, mainly operating at a sub-ideological level....

While I was slogging through the book, I happened to be e-mailing with a conservative I know. My correspondent thought my Ari-as-virtuoso theory was silly: "When Ari worked on the Hill he was widely considered to be a moron even by other press secretaries, who are mostly a bunch of ignorant dolts themselves." But how, I asked, could he have run circles around the Washington press corps? "Ari is a genius like the [Peter] Sellers character in Being There," he replied. "He was too stupid and too ignorant to know he was telling lies."

Chait concludes that he's still not sure where to come down on the "liar or dolt?" question. But as he puts it, "If I ever found out he wasn't lying, I'd be so disillusioned."

I feel the same way—I too always thought Fleischer was some kind of genius of evil. And I'm not persuaded by Chait's review. Can anyone really be THAT stupid? I mean, and still be able to dress themselves?

It just doesn't make sense to me. For instance, check out this exchange between Fleischer and Russell Mokhiber:

Russell Mokhiber: Ari, does Israel have nuclear weapons?
Ari Fleischer: That's a question you'll have to ask to Israel.
Mokhiber: Do you know, does the administration know, whether they have...
Fleischer: I don't personally know.

I took particular interest in this because it was "my" question. I know someone who knows Mokhiber, and I kept pestering him to ask this.

I didn't expect Fleischer to respond, "Yes Russell—at least 200 nuclear weapons! Which means all U.S. military aid to Israel violates U.S. law!" I was just curious to find out what he'd say. But I certainly never expected Fleischer's answer would be that he didn't "personally know" whether Israel has nuclear weapons.

This to me sealed my perception of Fleischer as a True Master. His answer seems so reasonable yet so confusing—why of course he doesn't personally know! Why are you troubling him with these foolish questions? You are stunned into befuddlement while Fleischer slips away.

It's only later that you think—wait, that makes no sense whatsoever. After all, it would have to mean that Fleischer is unwilling to say something on any subject unless he personally knows it. It implies that every single thing he says has been verified by him directly, rather than him reading it or someone telling him about it.

If so, here's what Fleischer has personally verified, just from that one press conference:

• That the University of Connecticut women's basketball team, the University of Maryland men's basketball team, the University of Minnesota-Duluth women's ice hockey team, and the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities men's ice hockey team all have won national titles.
• That Russia is about to begin a "new era of relations with Europe, as well as with the United States."
• That there are small groups of terrorists with the means and desire to strike us.
• That "as a result of the American military actions in Afghanistan, Afghanistan is now safer than it was before."
• That the International Security Assistance Force "is there currently in Kabul, and is being very ably led by the Turkish."
• That the U.S. and Europe engage in $2 trillion worth of trade every year.
• ... and much, much more!!!
Posted at March 17, 2005 11:04 PM | TrackBack

I always thought he was annoying, boring and childish, like every other PR flack who devotes his life to saying nothing at great length. It would be fun, fun!, if he were an evil genius, or even had a sense of humor. But he's just another shill blessed by the Peter Principle.

Posted by: Harry at March 18, 2005 09:58 AM


I don't know. I always felt Fleischer had something more than the standard flack—an utter lack of shame that was near-inhuman, a coolness under pressure, an ability to say things that sounded meaningful for a moment until he'd slipped away (see above, of course).

Compare to their current guy, who sometimes seems embarrassed or sweats when he trots out the latest lie. You'd never see Ari doing that. He was an utterly smooth surface, much like his smooth bald head, leaving us no way to grab hold.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at March 18, 2005 10:18 AM

Yes, Ari wasn't merely a Teflon press secretary, he was positively frictionless.

What gets me is that the press KNEW they were being conned by him all the time, and it just didn't matter to them.

Posted by: Ted at March 18, 2005 01:05 PM

I always thought Ari's conferences were like a weird game: 'Ok, let's see if anyone cracks and throws pens at me if I give this non answer.' . . . If the reporters there had any self-respect they would have all walked out. I would have preferred to see the pen-throwing. They did neither. I disagree that the answers sounded reasonable.

Posted by: pulaski at March 18, 2005 01:44 PM


I think I am more susceptible to Ari's Jedi mind-trickery than you. I would hear him say things, and his self-assurance was such that I often just couldn't believe any human could say such things if there wasn't something to them. After a moment the fog would lift, but by that time he would be long gone.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at March 20, 2005 03:45 PM


I am probably just messed up; very few things sound reasonable to me anymore. And he did slip out of there pretty fast.

Thanks for posting Jerry's report from Palestine.

Posted by: pulaski at March 20, 2005 08:19 PM